Jagger and Richards. Thelma and Louise. Batman and Robin. Some duos are just dynamic.
With Singin' in the Rain, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen teamed up to create one of the most beloved and enduring movies of all time. Two directors? No problem. Kelly handled all of the musical numbers and Donen handled everything else. Just like Batman and Robin.
Baseball's Loss is Cinema's Gain
Unlike the dapper, polished Fred Astaire—to whom Gene Kelly will be compared until the stars turn cold—Kelly was an explosive and athletic dancer. As he explained in his 1985 American Film Institute (AFI) Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech, Kelly never wanted to be a dancer in the first place; he wanted to play shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Kelly choreographed and oversaw all of Singin' in the Rain's musical sequences, and he was a tenacious taskmaster. For example, he was super-demanding on Debbie Reynolds (Kathy), who wasn't a trained dancer. In an interview, Kelly admitted, "I wasn't very nice to Debbie. I'm surprised she still speaks to me." Yowza.
Still, according to Patricia Ward Kelly, Kelly (and Donen) both agreed with producer and general MGM all-star Arthur Freed's suggestion that Reynolds was the right actress for the part. And then Reynolds worked her butt off. (Source)
"Debbie was transformed," Patricia Kelly told Newsday. "Gene always said, 'You choreograph to the woman,' so he choreographed to Debbie's capabilities. You don't outchoreograph and outdance her, you make her look great… it was the same thing with [Frank] Sinatra." That's right. Between posing for popular dorm room posters and swilling Jack Daniels with the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra learned how to dance from Gene Kelly.
Twinkle Toes? More Like Bloody Toes
If it sounds like Kelly was a bit of a perfectionist and a bit of a control freak, it's because he was. It brought out the best in the story. According to Pat Kelly, who was also her husband's biographer, "Gene's whole notion was that the dance needed to perpetuate the story" (source). None of that stopping and starting and suddenly bursting into song for no reason stuff that was popular with many musicals of the day.
The best example of this is the film's titular, iconic musical sequence. "Singin' in the Rain" was originally slated to appear later in the film and be performed by the movie's three leads, explains Roger Ebert, but Kelly bumped it up to the moment when Don realizes he's head-over-heels in love with Kathy and turned it into a solo (source).
"That explains the dance," Ebert clarifies. "[Don] doesn't mind getting wet, because he's besotted with romance. Kelly liked to design dances that grew out of the props and locations at hand. He dances with the umbrella, swings from a lamppost, has one foot on the curb and the other in the gutter, and in the scene's high point, simply jumps up and down in a rain puddle" (source). Kelly may have worked his costars until their twinkling toes were bruised and bloodied, but the resulting film looks effortless and organic; nobody suddenly erupts into song and starts tap dancing with a unicorn that appeared out of nowhere.
An American Classic
Singin' in the Rain was arguably the peak of Kelly's career as an actor, and it was certainly the pinnacle of his career as a director. He directed a dozen more movies after Singin' in the Rain, most of which are forgettable. But the actor, director, dancer, choreographer, and world-class roller skater remains a pop culture icon, and his bold, acrobatic moves still inspire dancers today.
Stan the Man
Stanley Donen was just 28 years old when he co-directed Singin' in the Rain. Helming one of the greatest films of all time before you turn 30? Not too shabby. By the time Donen directed Singin' in the Rain, he'd already been in Hollywood for over a decade. In fact, he started out as Kelly's assistant when he was still a teenager. Before collaborating on Singin' in the Rain, Donen and Kelly co-directed On the Town (1949), a hit musical about three sailors on shore leave in New York (source).
So if Kelly was handling all of the song and dance numbers, what did Donen bring to the production? According to critic Jeffrey M. Anderson, "it was Donen who perfected the film's crisp, hilarious rhythm," like when Don tells Dora Bailey his sophisticated, totally made-up life story while viewers see the reality of Don's decidedly unglamorous upbringing (source). If Kelly gave the musical sequences their pacing and pizazz, Donen gave the comedic and romantic performances their pop.
Joy to the World
Donen would go on to direct 25 more films, including the Audrey Hepburn vehicles Funny Face (1957) and Charade (1963). In 1998, he picked up an honorary Oscar for his body of work. His acceptance speech, in which he sings and dances with his statuette, remains one of the most memorable, charming moments in Academy Award history.
Still, Singin' in the Rain, the second of Donen's three movies with Kelly, remains his most enduring. According to Empire Online, the Kelly-Donen joint is "an ode to joy: to the joy of moviemaking, the joy of friendship, the joy of rhyming Moses with roses and toes-es, the joy of falling love and the joy of—as the man says—singin' and dancin' in the rain" (source).